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Worth the journey?

The Riviera Conference Centre in Torquay might be an ideal venue for Come Dancing but it is an incongruous setting for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' conference this year, of all years. Discussions on murder in the classroom, dilapidated schools and all the other ills that currently beset the education service seem freakishly out of place among Devon's palm trees. Cardiff and Glasgow, the grittier conference locations chosen by the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, are more in keeping with the mood of the times.

As our News Focus on the teacher unions showed last week the four main English and Welsh unions are all in reasonable, if not robust, health. Their membership figures are relatively steady, their finances are in the black, and the present Education Secretary is more conciliatory towards them than her predecessor ever was. But all is not as well as that list of plus-points might suggest.

The unions' leaders are turning up for their Easter get-togethers knowing that they have done virtually nothing to protect their members from the inspection system's terrors (would the Government dare to suggest that NHS doctors' consultations should be graded 1-7?). They have also been unable to stem the rise in class sizes, the principal subject of debate at last year's conferences. The NUT conference decision to hold a one-day strike over large classes, the ATL's declaration that none of its members should teach classes of more than 31, and the NASUWT's less specific warnings of trouble at the educational mill proved to be empty threats. The Government has therefore continued on its less-than-merry way by ripping up the regulations specifying schools' minimum space requirements and has, as Anat Arkin (TES2, page 8) reminds us, introduced a new labour law that means schools only have to consult a union about redundancies if they want to shed more than 20 teachers.

Even 10 years ago anti-union legislation of that kind would have provoked an outraged response. There would have been marches, and possibly walk-outs. But not in 1996. The unions' boycott of national curriculum tests and demonstrations against spending cuts may have forced the Government to change course, but both "victories" were only secured with outside help. The boycott was endorsed by the High Court and last year's central London demonstrations were effective because they, like the boycott, were supported by parents and governors.

So perhaps the teacher union executives are simply being realistic when they decide to sit on their hands. The reality is that they have almost as little room for manoeuvre as a teacher with a class of 40. They are weakened by a battery of anti-union legislation, the fact that they rarely speak with a united voice, and the innate conservatism of the majority of their members who try to "make the best of things" even though they think the inspection system stinks and there are buckets in the hall to collect drips from the leaking roof.

Although memberships are huge many teachers appear to care little about their unions. They join them primarily for the legal protection they offer, and though they make out a standing order for their subscriptions they contribute very little to the unions in other respects. The NUT may be right in thinking that excessive workload has meant that moderates who would once have involved themselves in branch affairs are now choosing to stay at home with their marking, but the profession's rising age profile (two-thirds of teachers are now aged over 40) and the growing proportion of women entering teaching are other factors that could be at work.

NUT general secretary Doug McAvoy may, however, be unwilling to accept that gender argument because he will have to share a platform next week with a woman of the far left, Carole Regan, the incoming president (see People, page 7). The pair have been political opponents for many years but they no doubt realise that it would be suicidal to fall out in front of a media pack hungry for stories. Nevertheless, as McAvoy and his supporters are determined to reduce the power of the branch activists who will fill the conference hall another confrontation seems inevitable.

The other unions cannot afford to be too smug about the NUT's misfortunes, however. They too need to have a good conference and be seen to take responsible decisions that are subsequently acted upon. If they don't, it is hard to see why anyone - even the activists - should bother to turn up at future conferences. Teachers' holidays are too precious to waste on pointless discussions.

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